DES MOINES, Iowa — UConn coach Kevin Ollie knows his team better than anyone.
So as No. 9 UConn shot just 33 percent and found themselves down by nine points to Colorado at half time on Thursday afternoon, he knew the Huskies wouldn’t panic.
“We’ve been through so much throughout the year,” Ollie said. “So we don’t get down too much. A lot of people on the outside, they get down. We don’t get down.”
And the Huskies didn’t. UConn outscored the Buffaloes by 16 points in the second half, and defeated Colorado, 74-67, in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Wells Fargo Arena.
Rodney Purvis led UConn with 19 points, including a couple threes in the second half. Daniel Hamilton scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
“Rod [Purvis] was huge playing defense on [George] King and stepping up and making big shots,” Ollie said. “Daniel was his usual self playing aggressively, get 10 rebounds and playing effectively.”
After an incredible offensive performance in the American Athletic Conference tournament last weekend in Orlando, the Huskies struggled mightily from the field in the first half, making just 10 of 30 shots.
“It was definitely an intensity issue,” Hamilton said. “First half we got out to a slow start and it’s been kind of like that all season.”
Colorado (22-12) shot 50 percent in the first half and also went 8 of 13 from the free-throw line. Big man Josh Scott was a major problem for the Huskies, scoring 13 points, seven of which came from the free-throw line.
The Buffaloes went on a 7-0 run late in the first half to give them an 11-point lead (its largest) late in the first half, and they led 36-27 at the break.
After the first half, Colorado led in rebounding (36-27), second chance points (10-7), points in the paint (14-10) and points off turnovers (7-2).
“I don’t know if they [UConn] got their wake-up call in the first half,” Ollie said. “I think they was still back at the hotel, but I think the bus came and picked ‘em up and we started playing in the second half.”
Purvis said that Sterling Gibbs kept the moral high in the locker room, saying that UConn has been in this type of situation before. Whatever Gibbs said, it worked.
UConn (25-10) cut Colorado’s lead to 42-40 after a 7-0 run with 14:56 to go.
Gibbs made a three-pointer in the corner to give UConn its first lead of the game at 47-46 with 11:35 left. The next possession, Hamilton got a steal and finished on the other end with a dunk to put the Huskies up three and forced Colorado coach Tad Boyle to take a timeout.
The Huskies’ defensive effort was much greater in the second half. Colorado had seven turnovers in the second half, and UConn scored 16 points off those turnovers. They limited the Buffaloes to 40 percent shooting in the second half (10 of 25).
“We knew the pressure was coming [in the second half],” Boyle said “How do you handle the pressure? You have to attack the pressure. We didn’t attack the pressure. We wilted. We turned it over. We didn’t attack it and handle it like we needed to.”
Colorado was just 2 of 10 from three-point range. They came into Thursday making 7.6 per game.
UConn’s run blossomed all the way to 24-6. The Huskies had its largest lead of 13 with 3:05 left. But Colorado fought back. The Buffaloes went on a 10-0 run to cut the lead to 66-63 with just a minute left.
UConn was able to hit its last eight free throws to close the game out. The Huskies were 22 of 23 from the line in the game, including 18 of 19 in the second half.
“We pride ourselves on our defense and anytime we’re not playing defense it shows in the game and once we’re playing defense it has a huge impact on our offense,” Purvis said.
Scott was the only player in double figures for Colorado, finishing with 23 points and 11 rebounds. He made 13 of his 18 foul shots. King, the team’s second leading scorer, finished with five points.
Jalen Adams had nine points. Amida Brimah had four points, seven rebounds and five blocks.
After a lackluster first half, the Huskies out-rebounded Colorado 36-33 (21-13 in the second half), had more points off turnovers (18-13) and had more fast break points (8-2) for the game.
“When you’re not making shots it’s kind of hard to extend and we value our defense,” Ollie said. “We pressure the ball a lot if you’ve seen any of our games and we try to create some turnovers. And we have Amida back there blocking shots. That is the part of our defense that took a while for it to kick in, but sooner or later we’re going to get you with our pressure.”